Philip Houghton: Three questions on culture every leadership team must answer

Establishing the right culture in an organisation is vital for long term success. Along with the CEO – see my last post – the top leadership team plays a critical role in shaping that desired culture by setting the tone and creating the environment for culture development to happen. Not all leadership teams fully understand their role however; undermining the cultural ambitions of their business.

Here are three questions they must answer to ensure their organisation’s culture continues to evolve and adapt to changing external and internal challenges and opportunities:

1. What does our desired culture need to look and feel like?

This is an important question for any leadership team because it ensures they really own the culture as a strategic driver of the organisation’s performance and a critical enabler of their vision. In my experience, many leadership teams either avoid the question, or don’t ‘hold it’ long enough to allow real insights to emerge.

By developing greater clarity over what the desired culture needs to look and feel like, leadership teams become more aware of the critical gaps that exist in their culture today – this heightened awareness then leads to greater ownership and action for shaping the desired culture of the future.

The most effective leadership teams then develop a form of ‘collective story’ about the desired culture – speaking with the same clarity, ownership and passion with their people – and bringing this message to life in a consistent and very visible way; obviously in close partnership with the CEO and the wider senior management community. Of course they will most powerfully communicate the wanted culture by also ‘being the culture’ with their people – by making the ‘medium the message’.

2. What are the deep and enduring cultural strengths we must nurture, evolve and build to meet our future challenges?

While leaders must recognise that ‘what got us here’ won’t necessarily ‘get us there’, the leadership will fail to shift the culture sustainably if they aim for wholesale change – which only causes resistance and confusion. Research also shows that a highly-driven, top down, bordering-aggressive leadership style only works in a genuine crisis and has a medium-term detrimental effect on culture – creating stress, disempowering people and leading to a loss of key talent.

The aspirational culture must therefore be built on (but not be exclusively about) strengths, and must emerge from within the business – rather than being mandated from above. This drives a deeper energy and ownership for culture development which helps to ensure it becomes a more fundamental movement for change, rather than a top-down initiative.

Smart leadership teams empower a cross-section of the organisation to consider the question in a really thoughtful and insightful way – giving them the time and resources to do a great job. A careful balance must also be struck by the leaders of ‘setting the scene’ for the conversation – by painting the strategic picture and key challenges that lie ahead – while also giving their people space to grapple with this critically important question.

3. How do we – as a leadership team – both enable and inadvertently hinder the culture development process?

Leadership teams may have different ways of addressing the first two questions, but few really consider the third around how they, as a team, help or hinder the culture process.

For many teams, the temptation is often to see culture flaws or weaknesses as being about ‘them’ (their people) but rarely about ‘us’. Which is why the most effective leadership teams start by looking in the mirror and considering their own strengths and shortcomings when it comes to shaping and modelling the desired culture. For example, many senior leaders are driven and capable individuals that don’t always fully embrace teamwork at the top. A resulting lack of strategic co-ordination at the top table can lead to massive organisational dissonance and be very apparent lower down.

Any leader that then talks about the importance of collaboration across business areas has lost credibility immediately.

This is why the CEO plays such a critical role in ensuring the leadership team really are ‘being the change they want to see’. Without this type of awareness and challenge, leadership teams routinely fail to set the tone from the top and consistently impede culture-development aspirations before they’ve even begun.

Seven ways in which the top team can shape their organisation’s culture:

  1. Making the case for strategic culture development – engaging in quality debate to define the context and culture objectives
  2. Investing quality time and energy in top team development to ensure they can ‘live the wanted culture’ and bring it to life for their organisation – taking real responsibility for behaviours and attitudes that undermine the culture-building process
  3. Modelling the wanted culture in everyday interactions, meetings and relationships – and speaking with one voice on the subject; ensuring it remains front and centre of the organisational agenda
  4. Supporting culture building initiatives and leadership development programs that aim to – directly or indirectly – enable wider culture evolution and change. Placing adequate financial resources behind ‘culture programs and initiatives’ and being visible in support of these to help embed the wanted culture
  5. Getting out of the way of the organisation – as it evolves, learns and grows on its culture journey. Being careful not to ‘revert to type’ and inadvertently signal we are ‘back to business as usual’
  6. Leading by example in translating culture objectives into their own business unit or functional teams. Creating a sense of safety that allows for greater openness and challenge
  7. Seeking and welcoming upwards feedback on their culture evolution journey – and acting on insights and challenges to be more effective.

In my next post, I’ll look at the next two critical culture development principles – ‘organisational engagement’ and ‘organisational alignment’.